Nuclear Boost: Cabinet approves construction of indigenous PHWRs

Cabinet approves construction of indigenous PHWRs

In a significant development in India’s nuclear power sector, the Union cabinet has approved the construction of 10 units of indigenous pressurised heavy water reactors (PHWRs). With this move, touted as one of the flagship “Make in India” projects in the sector, the government has reiterated its commitment towards clean energy.

Each of the new units will have a capacity of 700 MW, resulting in a total nuclear capacity addition of 7 GW. These are likely to come up at Kaiga in Karnataka (Units 5 and 6), Chutka in Madhya Pradesh (Units 1 and 2), Gorakhpur in Haryana (Units 3 and 4) and Mahi Banswara in Rajasthan (Units 1 to 4), where the government had previously given in-principle approval for setting up nuclear reactors. The implementation of these units will augment India’s nuclear power capacity, which is currently 6,780 MW or 2 per cent of the country’s total installed capacity.

Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited (NPCIL) is currently constructing the first four indigenously developed 700 MWe PHWR units at the Kakrapar Atomic Power Station (KAPS), Gujarat (Units 3 and 4) and Rawatbhata Atomic Power Station (RAPS), Rajasthan (Units 7 and 8). The tendering process is also under way for the first two 700 MWe units of the Gorakhpur Haryana Anu Vidyut Pariyojana (GHAVP) project in Haryana. The experience gained in the installation of these 700 MWe reactors will be helpful for the new batch of reactors in terms of the time taken for construction, among other things. Further, the new units will provide an assured order book to the industry, which could reap the benefits associated with economies of scale. Both these factors would help bring down the construction costs of the new reactors.

The recently approved PHWRs are expected to generate business worth Rs 700 billion and create over 33,400 jobs. Thus, the industry has reacted optimistically to the development. S.N. Roy, whole-time director, Larsen & Toubro (L&T), a leading player in the construction of indigenous nuclear plants, says, “The government’s decision will enable the Indian industry to further mature to global standards and result in developing the supply chain through small and medium industries, thus creating much-needed job opportunities.” This announcement will also help in the utilisation of the domestic capacity in heavy forging, which was created to replace imports through the NPCIL-L&T 26:74 joint venture (JV) formed in 2009. This capacity, however, could not be utilised in the nuclear segment as no new reactors have been awarded. Kirloskar Brothers Limited has also announced its  plan to participate in the upcoming nuclear power projects.

The latest approval for indigenous reactors comes at a time when there is growing uncertainty regarding the import of foreign technology. This is, of course, with the exception of Russian reactors. The latest of these is the second water-water energetic reactor (VVER) commissioned in March 2017 at NPCIL’s Kudankulam plant in Tamil Nadu. Earlier, in October 2016, the foundation stone was laid for two additional reactors at the same location. Since the 2008 civilian nuclear deal with the US and the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) waiver that gave India access to the global nuclear energy market, no new foreign technology transfer has taken place. While the final contract with US-based Westinghouse for setting up six AP1000 nuclear reactor units at Kovvda, Andhra Pradesh, was expected to be signed in mid-2017, meeting this deadline seems unlikely as the former filed for bankruptcy in the US in March 2017. Although the company has given assurance that its India plans will not be impacted, the government is expected to advance cautiously on the matter. Another impediment in the international arena has been China’s opposition to India’s bid to join the NSG, which controls the international nuclear trade. At present, India is partly dependent on uranium imports for fuelling its reactors. However, the proposed PHWRs would use the domestically available unenriched uranium for fuel.

The recent development will help fast-track the country’s three-stage nuclear programme. It will also play a key role in meeting India’s target of 14,500 MWe by 2024. In the long term, India is steadfast in its aspiration to achieve the 63 GWe production target by 2032. This is quite ambitious given the procedural issues and the long gestation period associated with such projects, and the industry’s previous track record and current circumstances. However, the target can be achieved if significant progress is made in the indigenous nuclear programme as well as in the import of advanced technology.

The three-stage programme aims to develop an advanced heavy water thorium cycle to fully utilise India’s vast thorium reserves at the final stage. The first stage involves the deployment of PHWRs fuelled by natural uranium and light water reactors, which produce plutonium besides electricity. In the second stage, fast breeder reactors (FBRs) will burn the plutonium with the blanket around the core having uranium and thorium, so that more plutonium is produced along with U-233 (fissile uranium). The development of PHWRs and FBRs will help in the generation of sufficient fissile material to be used in advanced heavy water reactors (AHWRs) at the third stage. A large number of nuclear plants in the country can help produce a huge inventory of U-233 required for AHWRs.

India is close to entering the second stage of the programme with the commissioning of the first 500 MW prototype FBR at Kalpakkam, Tamil Nadu. After significant delays, it is expected to be commissioned in 2017.

Of the country’s existing fleet of 22 reactors, 16 are PHWRs. These were indigenously designed and constructed by NPCIL based on the Canadian design of PHWRs at the RAPS built before the 1974 Pokhran nuclear test, which totally cut off the country from the overseas nuclear trade until 2008. NPCIL has gradually increased the capacity of indigenously developed PHWRs from 220 MWe to 540 MWe and then to 700 MWe, which is currently under development.

Overall, the performance of PHWRs has been free of mishaps, with the only major accident being a turbine hall fire in 1993 at Narora, Uttar Pradesh. More recently, widespread corrosion in the coolant channels of the 220 MWe units at the Kakrapar station, found in 2015 and 2016, has led to the shutting down of the station for the replacement of the coolant channels.

The 700 MWe reactors are based on the latest technology, using heavy water as the coolant and the neutron moderator in the nuclear reactor. As mentioned earlier, two units each at the RAPS and KAPS are currently under construction. Construction on both the projects began in 2011 and three of these units were scheduled to come online in 2016, but the commissioning date for the first unit has been shifted to 2018 due to several delays including deferment of equipment supply by companies seeking indemnity under the Civil Liability for Nuclear Damage (CLND) Act, 2010. These issues have been resolved since then. Coolant channel installation has been undertaken at one unit each at both the locations. While the unit at the KAPS is expected to commence commercial operation in the next 9-12 months, the RAPS units are likely to take longer. Meanwhile, the first two GHAVP units are in the retendering phase after the lapse of the tenders issued in August 2014, for the supply of major equipment and components, on account of suppliers’ concerns related to the liability clause in the CLND Act. These concerns have been resolved in the latest tenders with bidding companies required to take a liability insurance cover under the India National Insurance Pool floated by the General Insurance Corporation and other insurance companies.

The approval of 10 PHWRs at once has come as a pleasant surprise to the industry given that a government sanction of this magnitude has not been granted in the sector in the past. However, there are several challenges that need to be addressed to ensure that these units are set up within a definite time frame. Typically, nuclear plants take seven to eight years for completion depending on the tendering process followed. Currently, NPCIL is following the package route where it comes out with separate tenders for each activity. In this case, integration of all the tasks becomes time consuming leading to delays of three to five years. Industry experts are of the opinion that bundled turnkey contracts, which are followed in the thermal power segment, could help in faster execution. Turnkey contracts could be related to reactor buildings, power blocks and miscellaneous activities including roads, colonies, etc. Other issues relate to land acquisition, and availability of continuous supply of equipment and financial resources. Given NPCIL’s resource constraints to execute all the units, it is likely to enter into JVs with other central public sector units to raise the requisite funds for the execution of these projects.

Notwithstanding the challenges, the approval of 10 new PHWRs is good news for the sector. For the industry, this is an opportunity to strengthen India’s credentials as a major nuclear manufacturing powerhouse. It reinforces the country’s commitment towards a low-carbon growth strategy and the development of indigenous capabilities.